Political brief

Saturday May 30 2009

 

For months, he has been pounding the streets and pressing the flesh to procure a No 1 vote. Barry Ward, a barrister and first-time local election candidate for Fine Gael, is no stranger to politics, having spent two years as legal adviser to party leader Enda Kenny.

That exposure gave Ward a thirst for public office, but in the end it was a backyard dispute over a local ice rink that sent him into the political fray.

“The trigger for me was when I got involved (as legal adviser) with the local residents’ association,” said Ward, who faces off law library colleague Fred Gilligan, son of High Court judge Paul Gilligan, in Blackrock, Dublin.

“I was appalled at the way the local community was ignored. At the bar, you stand up to authority every day in court, now I want to stand up to my local authority.”

The adversarial nature of the bar has also fortified Gilligan (28) who admits that running as a Fianna Fail candidate in the current climate requires all the skills an advocate can muster.

“It has largely been a positive experience, but you do have to be able to make a strong argument,” laughs Gilligan.

“I don’t know if being a lawyer led me into politics, but lawyers are well suited to politics because we spend our days advocating on people’s behalf and getting results.”

A legal bonanza is raining down upon the electorate. In the capital alone, barrister and Labour Senator Alex White is running as a Dail candidate in Dublin South where rivals include sitting TD Alan Shatter, a prominent family law solicitor.

In the Dublin Central by-election, Senator Ivana Bacik — a barrister and high-profile law professor — is the Labour Party’s candidate.

Senior counsel Oisin Quinn (Labour), son of businessman Lochlainn and nephew of Ruairi, is going head to head with fellow SC Jim O’Callaghan (FF), brother of RTE star Miriam, in the Rathmines Pembroke ward.

Another law-library battle lurks in Stillorgan where barrister and former ministerial adviser Richard Humphries (Labour) is seeking to steal a march on first- time Fianna Fail candidate Liam Dockery, another barrister.

Legal and political power are inextricably linked and in many western democracies, lawyers and judges can dominate political discourse. Ireland is no exception.

Former taoisigh Jack Lynch, Charles Haughey, John A Costelloe and Garret FitzGerald were all lawyers, while presidents Mary McAleese and Mary Robinson had stellar legal careers.

Former Chief Justice Cearbhaill O’Dalaigh, a die-hard Fianna Fail supporter who served as the country’s youngest Attorney General, also served as President from 1974 to 1976.

In more recent times, former Attorney General and Justice Minister Michael McDowell left politics to return to the bar following a general election defeat.

Many serving judges, all of whom are political appointees, once held political office or tried to. Others secretly harbour thoughts of political glory and presidential prowess.

And lawyers dominate the current Cabinet where Taoiseach Brian Cowen, Finance Minister Brian Lenihan, Justice Minister Dermot Ahern and Children’s Minister Barry Andrews all boast legal qualifications.

We are not alone. In America, more than half of senators including President Barack Obama, are lawyers.

Lawyers have many attributes that are suited to politics; the ability to persuade, an understanding of the law, career flexibility, connections and ruthless ambition.

But is it public service, patronage or the sulphur of power that draws lawyers into the political den?

For Humphries, who served as special adviser to former Equality Minister and solicitor Mervyn Taylor in the 1990s, politics affords an opportunity to serve the public instead of a client, and to see the bigger picture.

The relationship between law and politics is a complex one and Humphries cautions against Government rule by a professional elite.

“Not all lawyers are the same. We are not a generic mass,” he says.

“For me, the time is right and I believe I have the ability and competence to serve. But lawyers and politicians have to be careful not to believe that all problems have a legal solution.”

The ultimate politco-legal prize for those who don’t want to grease their hands at the parish pump is that of Attorney General.

The post of AG is the legal Holy Grail, and an ascent to the position of Chairman of the Bar Council — the ruling body for barristers — is the ideal springboard for those most likely to take a seat at the Cabinet table.

The allure of becoming the State’s chief legal officer is irresistible, according to former AG David Byrne.

One of the legal architects of the Good Friday Agreement who was appointed AG by former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, Byrne crossed the political divide when he was appointed as a European Commissioner and later Special Envoy for the World Health Organisation.

“As AG, you’re at the heart of the action,” says Byrne, who offers some advice to would-be political hopefuls.

“Politics is hugely interesting and rewarding,” he says.

“It is a calling, but it is more difficult to do politics well than lawyering well.”

Which is what many of our aspiring legal eagles are about to find out.

 

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